In this issue:
Afternoons With Emily: The characters, for the most part, ring true, and whether or not you’re interested in a new interpretation of Emily Dickinson, this book is fun to read. If anyone can keep the reader glued to page after grim page, Cormac McCarthy does in The Road.
In the Naming of the Dead, female characters also have depth and dimension, something the male writers of thrillers often overlook.
AFTERNOONS WITH EMILY
by Rose MacMurray, © 2007 by members of her family: Frank G. MacMurray Jr., Adelaide MacMurray Aitken, and Worth D. MacMurray
Published by Little, Brown & Co., hardback, 472 pp
This book, published posthumously by Mrs. MacMurray’s family, may well collide head-on with the popular image of Emily Dickinson as a gentle lady poet. Of course anyone who has really read her poems is well aware that she was anything but gentle. Her reputation as a spinster afraid to venture out of her house is equally suspect. In this author’s vision, Dickinson’s “fear” seems a compound of arrogance and self-absorption.
Rose MacMurray has written a lively, engaging book in which Emily is NOT the central character, despite the title. The story’s protagonist is Miranda (nee Arethusa) Chase, daughter of a Harvard-educated classicist. Her mother is virtually a no-show, an invalid who has little to do with her child, and her father, abstracted by his wife’s illness and his own pursuits, isn’t involved in her world, either. For the first years, she lives in an attic room with her nanny.
Into her deprived life comes Alan Harnett, a student of her father’s, who proceeds to tutor Miranda, educating her in a highly idiosyncratic way. She thrives under his care and intelligence.
After the death of her mother, Dr. Chase takes Miranda with him to spend a year in Barbados with friends. Again, she is blessed with wise adults and a young maid who soon becomes her best friend. She also finds growing rapprochement with her father.
Upon their return to New England, her father takes a position teaching at Amherst College. Miranda, about eleven years old, finds herself trying hard to fit in at her new school, which affords her her first formal education. When urged by friends to profess Christianity, however, she puts them off. To her, the Greek pantheon is much more appealing (although she has sense enough not to enlighten them about that).
Emily Dickinson, daughter of Amherst’s “first family,” is known as the town’s great eccentric, only in part because she lives in virtual isolation with her sister, mother (who is thought to be “queer in the head”), and father. It seems that Emily, too, has refused to “profess,” an act of scandalous proportions to New England’s Puritan descendants.
When Emily hears of Miranda’s spunky refusal, she issues an invitation to the child to come to tea. From that beginning, a regular Monday afternoon visit becomes routine, one that lasts for several years. The portrait of Emily Dickinson that emerges from this relationship is fascinating and a little frightening. Miranda is a wary friend. Eventually, she grows into what may be called a worthy opponent. She is repelled by Dickinson’s self-absorption, even as she recognizes the flashes of genius. As the story progresses, Miranda finds herself puzzled and awed and angered, all in turns.
Miranda grows into a lovely young woman who becomes intrigued by the education of young children. Her former tutor, Alan Harnett, introduces her to the ideas of Friedrich Froebel, a German who, in the 1830’s, introduced the concept of kindergarten. Her fiancée, Davy, encourages her intellectual interests and her desire to make a difference in the world.
When Davy is killed in the Civil War, Miranda is stunned to learn that he has left her a trust that enables her to pursue her dream of making a difference in early education.
I’m quite sure that fans of Emily Dickinson will be offended by the pivotal turn at the end of the story, but then, this is a novel, and the author has chosen to make a leap that, while it probably can’t be justified, is nonetheless her prerogative. Unfortunately, Mrs. MacMurray, who was not involved with the publication of her manuscript, is no longer with us to defend her choices.
That quibble aside, the book is a fine example of good writing. The descriptions of the physical world – Barbados and New England and New York City – are vivid and right on. The characters, for the most part, ring true, and whether or not you’re interested in a new interpretation of Emily Dickinson, this book is fun to read.